Patricia M. Locke and Rachel McCann (ed. by), Merleau-Ponty, place, space and architecture, Athens, Ohio University Press, 2016
Space is a fundamental element in Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology, the intersection between spatiality, body and depth assumes not only a central role within the analysis of Phenomenology of perception, but also in the later works of Merleau-Ponty. The point is clear: in assuming the centrality of both our bodily experience and our perceptual activity and their position within the texture of the world, it becomes phenomenologically necessary to consider the genesis of space and its philosophical implications. However, it is necessary to stress that the relationship between bodily experience and space remains tied to a formulation of an indirect ontology and no further implications are drawn within Merleau-Ponty’s texts. In The visible and invisible Merleau-Ponty proposes his conception of intercorporeality based on the idea of chiasm and in the Notes de course 1959-61 the French philosopher underlines the meaning of Indeinander for his ontological elaboration. With this conceptual framework what emerges is the philosophical necessity to go further in our consideration of space. Starting from this perspective, Casey proposes a phenomenological differentiation between place and space. Place is seen as a first and fundamental instantiation of body within the world; space is conceived as an objective system of correspondences. If the place is bodily defined, space might be theoretically analyzed in mathematical terms and consequently might become an abstract space. Casey’s underlining of the dialectic between spaces and places allows the posing of some fundamental questions regarding the possible implications borne within Merleau-Ponty’s investigation of space: what is the relationship between space and dwelling? Can we phenomenologically investigate the dangers of certain kinds of place such as prisons? Is it possible to start from Merleau-Ponty in order to provide an organic and dynamic conception of architecture? The volume Merleau-Ponty, place, space and architecture is meant to draw possible applications of Merleau-Pontian heritage concerning spatiality.
Spatiality of body is what allows perceiving ourselves as a part of the world, it is from this intuition that Merleau-Ponty elaborates his idea of flesh. The idea of flesh leads to an enlargement of the common conception of intersubjectivity because it conduces to the formulation of the idea of intercorporeality. In his contribution to the volume, Casey starts from this meaning of flesh and considers the role of architecture. Instead of considering architecture as a mere product of human activity, Casey proposes to analyze it in its being part of the flesh of the world. In considering the concrete presence of building within our experience of dwelling, Casey claims that “such structures are not merely external but are lodged in the world’s flesh – flesh of its flesh – and are part of our own flesh” (87). Architectural structures are not considered by Casey in their mere presence but instead in their motivational affordance to act and explore their presence bodily. As Casey suggests, there is an interviewing between subjects and buildings, but there is also an interviewing between building with their parts and other buildings. The complexity of this interviewing does not pertain then only to subjectivity but it is proper of things in themselves. This richness of interviewing is expressed clearly by edges: “edges are present in the intercalation of the integral parts of buildings […] and in the intersection of buildings themselves in entire building complexes (neighborhoods, cities); they are continuous as well with such larger dimensions as earth, sky and world. Between all these edge situations there is a profound ‘interviewing’ (enterlacs), in Merleau-Ponty’s word: an intricate enmeshment” (87).
Casey suggests considering the complexity and richness of the intercorporeal situation that intimately connects subjects, world, and things. Assuming this intimacy as fundamental, David Morris considers the relationship between the spatiality of place and memory. In cashing out this relationship, Morris specifies that he starts from Casey’s differentiation between space and place – space as extensive and place as intensive –which links memory with place. Recalling Merleau-Ponty’s lectures on institution and passivity Morris provides a conception of memory conceived not as a mere passive activity but rather as something between passivism and activism: “Merleau-Ponty’s analysis of memory thus returns on linking the past and passivity, in light of his ongoing critique of presence-absence dualism” (113). This accent on passivity, especially in memory, shows a conception of a passive being that is not merely conceived as coincident with itself and then open to past, future and otherness. Consequently, this active passivity starts with the bodily situation and finds expression in other levels such as memory. In virtue of its being primarily an “I can” and then non self-coincident in its place, the body is what opens the experience of interrelation between place and space, past and future. For Morris, this primary situation facilitates the emergence of the significance of places and buildings in our experience: to remember is to move in ways that reanimate and expressively articulate this “past in the present”.
Casey and Morris both stress the centrality of the relationship between place and body and the positive contribution of architecture in enriching our experience. However, what happens when this fundamental condition is restricted? What happens exactly when the “I can” of our body is coerced and our perceptual dynamic restricted? Following this line, Lisa Guenther phenomenologically analyses the peculiar lived experienced of prisoners in supermax prisons, where they are coerced to live in extreme isolation for 22-24 hours a day. Lisa Guenther compares the possible experience of pure depth delineated by Merleau-Ponty as a “depth without an object” with the experience of night in which there is not experience of delineated profiles. Gunther stresses how in Merleau-Ponty this specific kind of experience is in contact with the primitive situation in which our body starts to be individuated, and consequently the author asks the interesting question: “is supermax confinement an experience of pure depth, or is it an experience of space deprived of depth?” (158). In claiming for the second option, Lisa Gunther very interestingly compares the spatial dimension of schizophrenia delineated by Merleau-Ponty with the schizophrenic situation of the prisoners in the supermax prisons and assume that this coercion to re-organize bodily spatiality – cells are extremely small and prisoners are subjected daily to artificial lights – brings on forms of mental illness. As Gunther clearly shows, “if schizophrenia is a pathology of space in which the world shrinks to the limits of my own private experience, and so destabilizes my sense of reality to the point where ‘the world is not self evident’, then prolonged solitary confinement amounts to a production of something like schizophrenia in the prisoner” (160). The article written by Lisa Gunther provides interesting stimuli not only to think about the dangers and risks of spatiality, but also to understand political and ethical issues that emerge directly from it. The bottom line of the various contributions to this volume is the investigation of the fundamental and generative meaning of our interrelation with spatiality. Furthermore, the general investigation is not intended in an aesthetical acceptation but rather in an accurate description of different layers intersected between them. Space is connected with place, place requires an accurate investigation of the bodily presence of the lived bodies, from its behalf this specific condition leads to the consideration of our connection with architecture in virtue of its being part of the perceptual texture. In addition, considering spatiality and architecture implies not only the analysis of different modes of giveness of space, place and bodily experiences, but also the accurate philosophical investigation of the ethical implications present in our living space. Following this ethical dimension of spatiality, Kukal analyses the peculiar experience of bodily space in tortures. Granting the correlation between body and world, the author highlights how in the extreme experiences of torture the bodily space is lived as objective and alien. Recalling the differentiation operated by Merleau-Ponty between the body for itself and the body in itself, Kukal analyses how the torturer takes advantages of this ambiguity of the body. As Kukal claims, “in the torture situation, the point of attempting to make a lived body less a subject and more a mere object is to render it vulnerable in an alien world” (177). According to the author, in the case of torture the body loses the contact with the world in virtue of the extreme accentuation of its own ambiguity. In the conclusion of this paper, Kukal underlines how the mechanism of torture is instantiated by the architects of torture, who not only make proper buildings for this execution but are also creating a violation of the intersubjective interviewing in which we are all interwoven. As Kukal puts it, “far from being an architecture that spatially enriches the world we inhabit, through a terrifying ontological violation of living spatiality it steals space at the level of the individual and puts the intersubjective dynamic into which we are all thrown on a tenuous ground, which can only endanger the social fabric into which we are all woven” (182).
The intention of this review is not to provide and exhaustive account of the numerous papers collected in this volume. However, it is necessary to stress that Merleau-Ponty, place, space and architecture provides stimuli to re-think the heritage of Merleau-Ponty in a contemporary and interdisciplinary direction. The merit of this publication is not only to provide a new understanding of place and space starting from Merleau-Ponty’s work, but it also has the virtue of providing a rich picture of the possible phenomenological implications that this theoretical framework displays in relation to other practices related to spatiality.
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